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Nashville Scene: Singer-songwriter Samantha Crain’s literary-minded songs are vibrant expansions

Call it necessity or imagination, but folksinger Samantha Crain has ensconced herself in a thoroughly do-it-yourself approach to music ever since she dropped out of college to travel in cramped vehicles to gigs that didn’t pay much. There was no real plan as to how things would work financially.

“It was more like I didn’t have the finances to continue my college education, so I was sort of looking for an alternative,” says the 21-year-old Shawnee, Okla., native. “I mean, I hadn’t been playing music very long—but for some reason I decided [to go for it].”

Crain eventually launched a grassroots collective called Green Corn Rebellion to handle booking (for herself and other bands), local distribution and networking. “It was just something to kind of make us sound a little more professional, I guess,” she says.

Crain wasn’t sure what she wanted her shows to look or sound like, but she tried things—like tacking a tambourine and fake vines onto a bass drum to add a whimsical, one-woman-band-ish thump to her guitar and harmonica playing. The results were compelling in an unassuming way.

“People would say, ‘Oh, you’ve been working on your original way of performing music,’ ” she says. “But I can honestly say that most of that was just because I didn’t know what I was doing and I was just trying to make something—anything.”

Nor was Crain sure what sort of band she wanted. First she played with guitarist and vocalist Beth Bombara. A year ago Crain assembled her shabbily grandiose indie-folk outfit, the Midnight Shivers (originally a trio with Andrew Tanz and Jacob Edwards, now a quartet with the addition of Nate Henricks).

“I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing,” Crain says. “It just seemed the right thing to do at the time was to collaborate with these musicians who wanted to be a part of what I was doing.”

Now that Crain has signed with Ramseur Records—a label based in Concord, N.C., that’s also home to The Avett Brothers—plenty will change. For one thing, she’ll have help the next time car trouble forces her to cancel a tour, something that happened not long ago.

Ramseur is rereleasing Crain’s Confiscation EP in July. Besides wider distribution, the biggest difference is the artwork. Last year she self-released it with a collage of childlike color pencil sketches and photos on the cover; the new Ramseur version looks like a venerable, lavishly embossed tome (plus it’s now more impressively subtitled—A Musical Novella).

But the D.I.Y. aesthetic is still at the core of Crain’s music. First, there’s her striking, dramatic singing, which at times bears a passing resemblance to Eliza Doolittle, Kate Bush or Judy Garland. But she says it’s not an attempt at imitation.

“I don’t like the sound of ways I say certain words,” Crain says. “But I realized whenever I started writing songs that I could make words sound any way I wanted to whenever I sang them. That was the best way I could experiment with music at that time, because I didn’t know a lot about the instrumental side of it. It changes. I know people see a show and then a year later see another show and say that the way I was singing has changed. And it probably has, just because I can’t really keep track of the way I’m pronouncing things. One guy remarked that I could make any word rhyme with any word.”

Then there’s Crain’s meandering lyrics and song structures. Songs like “Beloved, We Have Expired,” a swaying meditation with sporadic bursts of reverb-doused electric guitar, aren’t at all typical story songs—they’re music molded to the irregular shape of short stories. “They start out like that a lot of times—writing a story and deciding to turn it into a song later,” she says. “Sometimes you just have to make weird verses that don’t really fit.”

But Crain’s singing and thoroughly literary-minded songwriting—not to mention the way she weaves in experimental elements like ambient noise between tracks on Confiscation—are vibrant expansions on folk music.

“I think the reason I’ve never been able to write traditional [folk] songs is because I’ve never found a line that I liked good enough to have to repeat it over and over,” Crain says. “I guess one of these days when I write a line that I like well enough, then I might.”

Nashville Scene, written by Jewly Hight

  • Posted on May 30